Palestine/Israel: Reflections on a visit

Extract: War on Want Briefing to MPs

Israel’s use of military force against Palestinian civilians is a prominent feature of its occupation regime. This militarised repression of the Palestinian people extends beyond  the scenes of checkpoints and bombings we have unfortunately become accustomed to; Israel’s military and security services maintain an intense regime of surveillance, physical violence against people, and destruction of Palestinian homes, schools, and properties. Israel’s use of excessive force has been repeatedly condemned by the United Nations, and has been deemed unlawful by human rights experts. This violence and destruction is made possible by Israel’s trade in arms with dozens of countries, including the UK. Since 2014, the UK Government has approved over £500m worth of military technology and arms exports to Israel, including for weapons of the type used in clear violation of international law.

This means that the UK is providing material support for Israel’s illegal use of force, and is complicit by providing an infrastructure to sustain it through the ongoing trade in arms

From the Occupied Palestine Territory, 23 October – 13 November 2018

Evil is being done here: systemised, institutionalised and unrelenting.  Its manifestations are threefold: physical; bureaucratic; and psychological. The three distinct but interconnected aspects coil, python-like, round the Palestinians, asphyxiating their capacity for agency, all aimed at extinguishing the possibility of hope.  The extinguishment of hope is part of the point: it is an Israeli tactic to embed the idea that it will always be dominant.  To achieve this requires a refinement in the modes of cruelty that can be visited upon people.  This surely is part of the motivation in requiring a person to demolish their own house, a standard practice.


The Israeli authorities have ordered the Palestinian citizen Murad Hsheima, 38, to demolish his own house in Ras al-Amud in Occupied Jerusalem. Otherwise, the municipality would carry out the demolition and force him to pay 60,000 NIS and serve two months in jail. 

Ensuring the house came down

According to Palestinian sources, 19 houses have been demolished in Jerusalem by their owners since the beginning of 2018. The Palestinian Information Center

The overarching aim of the current Israeli regime is the Judaisation of Palestine/Israel – ugly word, ugly concept.  To achieve that purpose a key condition must be met: That the number of Jews in the area controlled by Israel must be greater than the number of Palestinians. That is the rationale and driving motivation of establishing Jewish only settlements on Palestinian land.

In order to achieve the goal of population supremacy, Palestinians need to be removed from their land and properties and/or be corralled into semi-isolated enclaves within which they may constitute a majority but their sovereignty is limited, curtailed by Israeli domination of virtually everything, including receipt of tax remittances, control and withholding of infrastructure (water, utilities, roads, travel routes etc). This stifling of Palestinian life can only be achieved by a sophisticated, multi-layered, physical and psychological attritional war of relentless coercion and control.

From Hamoked: Cennter for defense of the Individual

Since 2003, the Israeli military has imposed a draconian permit regime in the West Bank areas trapped between the separation wall and the Green Line (the armistice line between Israel and the West Bank), an area it refers to as “the Seam Zone”.

The permit regime applies to Palestinians only; Israelis and tourists do not require a permit to enter the Seam Zone or stay in it.

Palestinians who live in the Seam Zone or wish to enter it in order to tend to their lands, visit relatives or conduct business, are forced to obtain a permit, subject to the regulations of a stifling and highly bureaucratic military mechanism, which dictates a myriad of conditions for the receipt of permits to enter and stay in the Seam Zone.

Cartoon by Mohammed Sabeenah

Note that despite living on occupied Palestinian territory, settlers are subject to Israeli civil law, while Palestinians are subject to Israeli military law.  Palestinians are tried in military courts as adults at the age of 16, while the majority of Israelis at 18.

The heart, the mind, the soul

It is not only an occupation of the physical environment, but also a pernicious attempt to occupy the Palestinian mind, heart, and soul.  The occupation aims, and to some degree achieves, a colonisation of the psyche, of the individual and communal will. People see no end to this imperial Israeli regime. They see no external forces of substance and resolve arraigned against it. They feel, rather, it’s ever- tightening grip – a strangulation, such that they struggle to take breath.

Going to school in Hebron
Going to school in Hebron

From the World Bank: Palestine’s economic outlook April 2018

Unemployment in the Palestinian territories continued to be high at 27% in 2017. In Gaza, it reached 44% compared to 18% in the West Bank.

In 2017, only 41% of those aged between 15 and 29 were active in the labor market, reflecting high pessimism regarding employment prospects.

Despite a low participation rate, unemployment amongst this category reached a staggering 60% in Gaza. There are also dramatic differences in labor force participation by gender. Male participation rates reached 71% in 2017 while women have recent participation rates of 19%.

In any other situation it would seem statistically remarkable the number of people I met who had been in prison, detained by the Israelis either as a result of a court hearing, or not unusually being subject to Administrative Detention, effectively six months’ imprisonment without charge or trial.  And it’s renewable, so one can end up with more than one consecutive Administrative Detention.

According to more than one person I spoke to, the twist in the tale is that you’re not told of the renewal of detention for another six months until the last day of the current one, as you’re preparing to leave prison.

Focused, not random, cruelty

I think it unlikely this is an act of random cruelty. More likely, following on from points made earlier, I speculate it is a matter of policy and is part of a wider strategy that is directed to demeaning people and demonstrating, once again, absolute Israeli dominance.

The physical incarceration, along with the ‘will I let you out, or will I not’, is merely the means by which the Israeli state demonstrates it is in total control and it can do what it wishes, and will. This lesson is not in the main directed at controlling behaviour in prison, so much as for controlling behaviour and aspiration on the outside, directly to the now ex-prisoner, and indirectly by the insidious intimidation of friends and family.

Fascist tendencies

One of the characteristics of a fascist state is its totalising intent and mode of operation. Narratives counter to the dominant one are silenced and vilified.  The ‘messaging’ of a fascist or nascent-fascist regime must always be ‘on message’.  This requires censorship, skewed media ownership, the distortion and/or erasure of uncomfortable historical events, manipulation of school curricula and, at a deeper level, the internalisation of permitted ‘good thoughts’ and the elimination of thoughts and public utterances that might foster doubt – create cracks – in the totalising edifice of the state’s ideology.

Thus the Hebrew and Arabic press is subject to censorship but, as we[1] were told, it can be with a soft touch because editors have internalised what is permitted and what is not and so external ‘red pencils’ are rarely required.

Every nation has its dominant narrative, the stories it tells itself about its origins and its passage through time.  But it is only a particular type of state that overtly deploys state instruments to construct an unchallengeable authorised history. A state authorised history requires a dual movement, one of construction, the other of erasure.  Thus the 2011 Naqba Law renders unauthorised facts unsayable, a first and necessary step to expunging troubling events from the collective memory.  The Naqba law requires:

 ‘…the Finance Minister to reduce state funding or support to an institution if it holds an activity that rejects the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” or commemorates “Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the state was established as a day of mourning.’

As explained in a previous piece, for Palestinians Israel’s independence day marks their Naqba, their catastrophe, a day of mourning when they were dispossessed of their lands and freedoms.  What this law means is that the Naqba cannot be studied or perhaps even mentioned in schools, or in any institution receiving public funds, a university, for example.

In a further twist, the Knesset (Israeli parliament) has just passed the first reading of a Cultural Loyalty Law which would allow the culture minister to withhold public funding for cultural organisations ‘working against the principles of the state’. These measures are all expressions of fascist mentality, a term I do not use lightly.

The possibility of change

Most of my time in the OPT was spent in conversations with a range of Palestinians, some of whom headed organisations or projects, others who just happened to be staying in the same hotel as me.

With many I met, the possibility of change, if spoken of at all, its potential realisation is cast one or two generations forward. There is even, in some conversations, the sense of internalising the oppressor, of admiring Israel’s efficient and pervasive intelligence services, of according to Israel the ability to be one, two, or thirty steps ahead of everyone else.  Life is conceived as being lived within a perpetual tunnel, no end in sight, a way forward hard to imagine or believe in.

A constriction in the possibility of hope provokes despair; and despair engenders apathy and a consequential narrowing of focus onto one’s own situation, not out of meanness or disregard, but as the means to conserve one’s spirit and energy. For notwithstanding the occupation, children need to be brought up and cared for, incomes need to be earned (where possible), food purchased and meals cooked, and somehow the semblance, or illusion, of ‘normal’ day to day life needs to be preserved.

The Separation Wall

And yet….

And yet, among those Palestinians I was fortunate to meet, there was also something else going on, perhaps most acutely articulated by those who were involved in the care and education of young people.  It crystallised around the idea of ‘responsibility’, the fulfilment of which was understood as a freely chosen moral imperative.  What responsibility?  It is the responsibility to imbue the next generation of Palestinians with a sense of their own worth, of their potential for agency, notwithstanding the difficulties.   Hope in this context becomes less ethereal, becomes a generator of action, of demanding agency.  The Palestinians have a word for it:  ‘Samud’.  ‘Steadfastness’.  A concept that chimes with the words of Professor Rita Giacaman, of Birzeit University, when in her recent and brilliant presentation on The Psychosocial Health of Palestinian Youth: Occupation and Resistance she made the point ‘Agency makes you stronger’.  So it should be no surprise that cultural festivals and endeavours have a manifest presence, whether in Bethlehem, East Jerusalem, Ramallah or Nablus.

And children still play:

This may be a Banksy drawing. It’s on the Separation Barrier

No comfort here

But no-one reading this should take comfort from the resilience described here. Mighty geopolitical storms are brewing in the region, none auger well for Palestinians. Which takes me to a final point in this section: it is not charity that is required but political action and manifest support. It was said to me over and over again, that Internationals, and even me being there, was valued – they had not been forgotten. A conclusion you are unlikely to come to if you watch or read the mainstream media which is virtually devoid of coverage unless and until an Israeli is hurt or killed.   The situation will not change in the absence of the international community changing its stance towards Israel.

What needs to be held in mind is that Israel is now governed by a particular regime, rabidly nationalistic, with quite discernible fascist tendencies.  A fascist regime is never ultimately for the people, though for a period such regimes are brilliant at conjuring the simulacrum of a people and a regime marching in step. (Fascist regimes have a penchant for marching. At the symbolic level marching expresses ideas of control and order, the bedrock of fascist ideology.)

Israel society is, for the present, self-ensnared in the current regime. Somehow that has got to change. As I’ve said before, the one thing the current Israeli regime fears is a loss of support internationally, in particular by the USA, UK, and EU. And this is where civil society in these countries has a role to play.

[1] For four days I joined the ICAHD UK recommended tour. The next tour is in March 2019.

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About Me

My name is Bernard Spiegal, I write mainly about Palestine/Israel and related issues; sometimes other stuff too


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